Following the advice of American mythologist, scholar and writer Joseph Campbell, Sharman Apt Russell follows her bliss. And Russell's bliss follows several courses.
She has written about hunger, obsessed over delicate creatures that she finds pretty but basically useless, and traced her own spiritual journey, transcending two seemingly different belief systems.
"For me, my bliss really is nature," Russell said in an interview with the Standard-Examiner. "The beauty of flowers, the grace of butterflies, the colors that I see in nature, they really make me feel blissful."
But Russell also finds her bliss in science.
"I think science reveals how we see the world," she said. "Science is about that amazing complexity and the daily miracle of caterpillars turning into butterflies, and women giving birth, and trees leafing out. I'm just bowled over by how beautiful and powerful nature is."
Russell is an award-winning author whose books over the last 25 years include "An Obsession With Butterflies," "Anatomy of a Rose," "Songs of the Fluteplayer" and "Hunger: An Unnatural History," which the San Francisco Chronicle called "luminous."
This natural science writer and professor of humanities at Western New Mexico University in Silver City will be the guest speaker Friday at Weber Pathways' seventh annual author/dinner event.
Butterflies are free
When choosing a topic for her books, Russell gravitates toward those with which she feels a connection and can serve as metaphors in her writing.
In her book about flowers, she discovered that while flowers are very beautiful, they are also powerful. "Without flowers," she said, "we would all just die because most plants depend on flowers for reproduction."
On the other hand, butterflies, while beautiful, are not that useful.
"Butterflies, as it turns out, aren't that important as pollinators. If all the butterflies died, we would lose a few flowers, but they're not like bees or moths. They're not engines, they're just kind of a gift."
Butterflies may be purely ornamental, but they also are crafty little critters.
Russell points to the defensive strategies that caterpillars and butterflies employ, such as the ability to disguise themselves as bird droppings, to pretend to be another creature, and to emit chemicals to ward off predators.
"They are just so vulnerable, helpless little things in the food mill of nature," she said. "But then there's all the ways plants use to protect themselves from caterpillars, because caterpillars would just eat up the green world if plants didn't protect themselves."
Another surprise about butterflies: They can be rather brutish when it comes to procreation.
"Some butterflies rape, that was a surprise to me," Russell said. "The female ones want to mate as much as possible to get the best genes and males ... so some species forcibly mate and then plug up the female with what you would call a chastity belt so she can't mate again."
Russell is fascinated by such discoveries in the natural world.
"It's all those wonderful, curious little facts that tickle me and that I find amusing and entertaining and sometimes profound."
All is God
Russell's latest book, "Standing in the Light: My Life As a Pantheist" (Basic Books, 2008), is a meditation and memoir on the history and meaning of pantheism and her relationship with it.
Russell, who belongs to the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, drew the title of the book from the Quaker phrase "to stand in the light."
She defines pantheism as "the belief that the universe, with all its existing laws and properties, is an interconnected whole that we can rightly consider sacred."
The word "pantheism" derives from two Greek words meaning "All is God."
Russell said pantheism has been part of human culture since early times, from the early Greek philosophers to the Roman Stoics to the American Transcendentalists of the 19th century. Some famous pantheists were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Einstein.
She believes it is possible to be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist -- and also a pantheist.
"Tell someone you are a pantheist, and she is likely to wrinkle her brow in confusion," said Russell. "Tell her you believe that the universe is a miracle worthy of awe and reverence -- and she may well nod her head in agreement."
Pantheism has seen a resurgence over the last few decades with the environmental movement. Naturally, it has its share of critics. The Catholic Church has repeatedly weighed in and warned against it. The blockbuster mega-hit "Avatar" was criticized in a New York Times op-ed piece as director James Cameron's "long apologia for pantheism -- a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world."
Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion" has described pantheism as "sexed-up atheism" -- which he intended as a compliment.
"I don't mind being sexy," Russell said. "But I disagree with him (Dawkins) in the sense that (I believe) pantheism is about cultivating and trying to feel reverence and a sense of awe toward the universe."
"Pantheism -- like Christianity or like Mormonism or like any religion -- is broad and people bring their own individuality to it," she said.
Science and religion
In some ways, Russell sees pantheism as a bridge between science and religion. She doesn't question that the latest discoveries in biology, chemistry, and physics are true, "or at least true for the moment, for science is a method, not a destination."
"I don't think science has anything to say about faith," she said. "Science cannot prove or disprove a personal God. It cannot prove or disprove my feelings that the world is sacred. I think they really can remain separate. You can be scientific and have deep religious feelings. I don't think that religion has to say anything about science, either. The problem is when they want to make statements about each other, when they really are separate spheres in my mind."
When she speaks Friday, Russell said she will address pantheism in a broader context as she talks about her love of science and nature, and her belief that the universe is interconnected like a web. She hopes people will attend and be willing to listen with an open mind.
"I'm not a pagan dancing around a tree, I anchor myself to the Quaker community," she said. "I belong to an organized religion, Quakerism, which is eclectic and diverse in its beliefs, but does have a sense of the sacred and ... a sense of reverence. It has a lot of history to it, and so I'm am not unanchored."
ON THE WEB: Weber Pathways honors volunteers
What: Weber Pathways' author/dinner event
Who: Nature and science writer Sharman Apt Russell
When: 5:30 p.m. Friday, March 19, 2010
Where: Timbermine Restaurant, 1701 Park Blvd., Ogden
Admission: $100, $80, $60. Tickets can be ordered online at www.weberpathways.org or by calling (801) 393-2304.